Saturday, January 15, 2022

Scream and SCREAM Again

The mad genius of Wes Craven’s Scream movies was making them sharp commentary on the very genre of which they were exceedingly effective versions, and which he helped create. The innovation of Kevin Williamson’s screenplay was, after a couple decades of slasher pictures, making its characters young people who’d seen slasher pictures before. This thorough understanding of the types and tropes of the subgenre made for a thick layer of 90’s irony in their dialogue. Here were young people targeted in a small-town knifing spree from a masked killer, and they nonetheless thought a command of these stories’ cliches would keep them safe—typified in a scene where the horror nut pontificates about rules for survival, including never leaving alone saying “I’ll be right back.” This made the plot’s twists and turns all the more satisfying and surprising—cutting into the conventions by zigging where others zagged, or maybe doubling back around to predictable to catch you all the more off-balance. The first is one of the best of its kind, and a total deconstruction of it at the same time. As the series progressed, it became all the more meta, too, with good sequels including discussions of sequels, as the events of the first film inspired an in-universe horror franchise: Stab. By the 2011 release of the underrated Scream 4, it even became a generational commentary, a belated sequel to a cult property in which younger characters were fans of the movies based on the events of the first movies. That Craven continued making these warmly photographed and sleekly paced thrill machines capable of pulling off bloody kills and teasing genre play in the same movies, sometimes in the same scene, made them excellent entertainments.

So of course the fifth in the series, the confusingly titled Scream, is pretty aware it’s been another 11 years since the last and therefore must, in the current vogue, be all things to all people—a fresh cast of new people doing the same things, and a returning cast looking sideways at the proceedings until reluctantly drawn into the same old same old. It’s also the first in the series (save a forgotten three-season MTV show from a few years ago that goes unreferenced here) without either Craven, who passed away in 2015, or Williamson, who serves only as producer here. Maybe that accounts for the movie’s sense of grinding mechanics. It has been directed, by Ready or Not’s Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, and written, by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, in what I could only think of as a karaoke version of the original’s moves. It has a small portion of Craven’s playful use of obstructed negative space, and a bit of the bite of Williamson’s writing. But it’s also clear the originals were the work of auteurs, while this new one is merely the product of talented technicians. They know the notes, but not the music. There’s a cute teen star (Jenna Ortega) on the wrong end of a menacing phone call in the opening scene. There’s a quickly sketched youth group full of victims and suspects (Melissa Barrera, Jack Quaid, Dylan Minnette, and others). There’s a reluctant call to action for the series’ previous survivors (David Arquette, Courteney Cox, Neve Campbell). And there’s an unknown ghostface killer skulking about in a gory whodunnit. The movie plunks down the sequences and surprises exactly where you’d expect them. It’s inelegant, but sometimes effective and always self-aware—like the bloodbath finale inaugurated by the killer waving a gun shouting, “Welcome to the third act, bitch!”

The project mistakes calling out obstacles and missteps for absolution when stumbling over them. There are long sequences in which characters lay out the new rules of a re-quel, along the way name-checking Terminator, Ghostbusters, Star Wars, and Halloween as recent examples of the quasi-remake sequel. There’s joking about the title, too, forgoing a number for a faux-remake naming convention in vogue, a fake grab for a glimmer of originality in the face of so much derivative. One character quips she prefers The Babadook and Hereditary to the Stabs, a fine wink at the art house horror cycle we’re in. Another complains the Stabs went off the rails with the fifth one. (Ha.) Still another references a toxic fanbase that won’t let long-running franchises try new things. That’s pretty sharp commentary on the online right-wing reactionaries who’ve latched onto long-running franchise fanbases to recruit young people into their shallow ax-grinding, anti-“woke” sloganeering. And the movie as a whole does a good job updating the talking points of its self-aware joshing for the current cultural landscape. I appreciated the effort. But the joy of the originals was not just that it could call out current horror tropes, but could upend them in unexpected puncturings. And they had characters you could care about even in the slasher structure—the deaths felt sad even as they fulfilled the genre’s obligation. This one’s everything you’d expect all the way down, and too routine to flesh out its feelings like that. Even the surprises are inevitable. There’s some low genre pleasure as far as that goes, and the young cast is gamely throwing itself into largely under-written parts. At best, it's watchable echoes of pleasures past. But, as is so often the case with these formulaic legacy sequels, there’s something depressing about the legacy characters, and us, stuck in this loop.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

What's Done Cannot Be Undone:
THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH

Tragedy, in the most classic sense, is about consequences. It’s forged in the moment where characters are confronted, inescapably, with the cold, hard facts of their downfall and realize that they brought it on themselves. It is thus that Shakespeare’s Macbeth is perhaps his most tragic tale. Not the saddest, and not the most dramatic, necessarily, but perhaps the most tragic for it sits almost entirely in that moment of realization. Macbeth is quickly brought to commit treasonous murder—from inscrutable witches on the one hand prophesying his kingship, and from a scheming wife’s goading on the other—and the rest of the play watches as the weight of such a deed sends him to his doom. This deep engagement in what happens and what inevitably results from those happenings is something writer-director Joel Coen, adapting the play for his first film without his brother Ethan, understands. (Quite a brotherly compliment to replace Ethan with the Bard; they do share a love of language.) The Coens have made a career out of films, often some mixture of bleakly suspenseful and darkly funny, about characters confronted with the distance between what they think they can get, and what life’s circumstances have in store for them. I often think of an exchange from their 2009 effort A Serious Man, still perhaps the finest film in a body of work made up almost entirely out of excellent films. In this moment, a harried professor confronts a befuddling student, telling him: “Actions have consequences.” To which the young man replies: “Yes, sir. Often.” The professor’s immediate frustrated response: “No! Always! Actions always have consequences.” There’s no running from that.

So here’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, a stark and unsparing black and white feature shot in sharp digital closeups, filmed on spare stages cloaked in artifice and darkness, backgrounds that are bleary and sets cavernously empty. A boxy aspect ratio forms a proscenium around the performers, trapping the characters even as their proximity to the camera often causes a startling immediacy. You can see every pore in their face, every wrinkle, each subtle darting of the eye or twitching of the lip. The film is at once intimately engaged in its actors’ decisions and held back at a theatrical remove—a cold and distant picture that’s nonetheless inscrutably, uncomfortably near. Coen’s vision of this story, made vivid by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and production designer Stefan Dechant, is one that’s part the high-contrast lighting of a film noir—a look that turns Lady Macbeth into a regal femme fatale—and the woozy constructed angles in crooked stairways and enormous windows of German expressionism—down to its extension of anxieties about dreams and realities. Coen at every turn emphasizes the moral confusion inside the characters by highlighting the foggy displacement around them. The opening shot looks like it is staring up into milky sky, a bird circling, until the fog starts thinning and we see it’s a vast expanse of pale dirt and puddle where crouches our otherworldly portents ready to unfold a grim tale in which its characters are cogs. In this warped world of oppressive contrast and artifice, the potential majesty of the throne is all implication—down to the landscapes terminating in blankness the color of a scrim, through which the castle can be only just barely glimpsed, a flicker in the distance like Kane’s Xanadu. You just know that’ll be unsatisfying for anyone who wants to rule there.

And that’s how Denzel Washington approaches the lead role, as a man who, perhaps unconsciously, already senses that achieving a royal status won’t solve the deep dissatisfactions in his soul. Washington takes his considerable charisma—he easily commands attention like few of his or any generation—and twists it inward in hesitation and guilt. His head hangs heavy even before the crown, like his mind really is plagued with scorpions, leading him to question his choices before, after, and as he makes them. He becomes a reluctant conduit for his own malevolence, and as such is almost going through the motions as a spectator. His soliloquies are hushed, tortured. His later outbursts of madness have none of the live-wire aggrandizement you might expect. Although he holds considerable power in the lives of the other characters, he always carries himself like a pawn. It’s an embodiment of what Emma Smith, professor of Shakespeare studies at Oxford, identifies as a central question of the text: “Is [Macbeth] in control of his own actions…or is he merely working out a part that has been written—by witches’ prophecies, by historical chronicle, by Shakespeare himself?” Washington’s approach wrings pathos from this uncertainty as he frets his hour upon the stage, worried that his life, in the end, will signify nothing. Coen’s film never once roots for his victory; it sees too well how this insecurity leads to his brutality. And Macbeth’s uncomfortable wracked nerves and slippery senses in this telling makes the characters plotting his downfall seem like an act of planning to put him out of his misery.

The movie constantly feels the crushing weight of inevitability. Other characters exist either in direct dialogue with Macbeth, or lurk outside of his notice, each playing their preordained part in the tale. There’s his wife (Francis McDormand), a brittle shiv of ambition whose inability to handle hiding their dark deeds marks the couple’s conjoined unraveling. There are assorted men of more and less power in the kingdom (Corey Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Harry Melling, Ralph Ineson, and more) who go under the knife or jostle for power in ways violent, righteous, and self-involved. (Stephen Root’s careless drunken babbling is a fine counterpoint there.) And then there’s the innocent, victimized Lady Macduff (Moses Ingram) sees her home and family burned to the ground by the cruelty of men’s ambitions. All are brought into the nightmare logic of the filming and of the tragedy, positioned as fellow travelers in what fate has in store. Everything is trapped in that aim, as just another facet of the design. Loud on the soundtrack are the steady drips of falling water, or blood—thuds and knocks in a regular rhythm like Poe’s tell-tale heart, or the clock that one should ask not for whom it tolls. We hear fluttering birds and heavy footfalls against cavernous castle walls, every action a reaction. The three witches, all deviously inhabited in the contorted body and raspy voice of the same performer (Kathryn Hunter), remain scarily ambiguous, clearly otherworldly and possessed of dark powers through shifting specters. Are they predicting the future or controlling it? Everything they say comes to pass. Yet dark forces unleashed by greed, guilt, and despair have their own cruel, predictable logic. And tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time. Tragically, one can find too late the consequences of actions are all one’s left in the end. They can signify everything.

Friday, December 31, 2021

30 Favorite New-to-Me Movies of 2021

 

30. Highwaymen (2004, Robert Harmon)
29. What About Your Friends (1995, Gina Prince-Bythewood)
28. The Pit & the Pendulum (1991, Stuart Gordon)
27. Just Me and You (1978, John Erman)
26. Hard Rain (1998, Mikael Salomon)
25. Indiscreet (1958, Stanley Donen)
24. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982, Colin Higgins)
23. Julius Caesar (1953, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
22. Strike Up the Band (1940, Busby Berkeley)
21. Ladybug Ladybug (1963, Frank Perry)
20. The Secret Invasion (1964, Roger Corman)
19. Daughter of the Nile (1987, Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
18. Hester Street (1975, Joan Micklin Silver)
17. Public Speaking (2010, Martin Scorsese)
16. The Tall Target (1951, Anthony Mann)
15. While the City Sleeps (1956, Fritz Lang)
14. Mad Love (1935, Karl Freund)
13. Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954, Don Siegel)
12. Joint Security Area (2000, Park Chan-wook)
11. Blue Car (2002, Karen Moncrieff)
10. Some Came Running (1958, Vincente Minnelli)
09. The Major and the Minor (1942, Billy Wilder)
08. Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960, Cyril Frankel)
07. Five Graves to Cairo (1943, Billy Wilder)
06. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, Andrew Dominik)
05. Selena (1997, Gregory Nava)
04. Police Story (1985, Jackie Chan)
03. Faust (1926, F.W. Murnau)
02. Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman)
01. The Long Gray Line (1955, John Ford)

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Broken Homes: ENCANTO and FLEE

Encanto is an atypical Disney animated musical. Sure, it has the twirling and singing and magic and cute kids and animal sidekicks. But it’s also curiously interior—literally and psychologically—concerning itself mostly with feelings of anxiety and insecurity among the enchanted family nestled safe, but not so sound, in a fantastical house in a small Colombian village. The usual Disney lively likable misfit protagonist is middle daughter Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), a plucky, curly-haired, bespectacled do-gooder who feels left out of the family specialness, since she’s the only one who wasn’t bestowed a magical power. The grandmother matriarch presides over their home with a glowing miracle candle gifted her out of the ether upon the death of her husband at the hands of marauders fifty years prior. Since then it’s filled their home with sentient floors and banisters, cupboards, counters, and stairs. And every other member has a gift to share—super-hearing, power-lifting, shape-shifting, plant-sprouting, medicinal cooking, weather-controlling, animal-talking, prophesying. 

The plot of the movie concerns Mirabel’s attempts to make herself valuable to the family by saving their flickering flame, suddenly vulnerable for the first time in decades. To do so, she’ll need to grapple with discovering various family member’s own insecurities, and learns along the way that she’s not the only one who feels pressure to live up to the family name and expectations that come with it. Each song, provided by Lin-Manuel Miranda with his usual rat-a-tat wordplay and love of rhyming rounds and recurring motifs, returns to this theme, with several characters given numbers that express their internal struggles, and a few group numbers full of family gossip about others’. This is strangely rocky territory for a bustling, busy animated musical—at once cramped and complicated—and it never really takes off like a Moana or Frozen. But what it has in spades is personality, bursting to the seams with side characters and flowing with seemingly authentic Columbian style—food and language and clothes and flowers exploding in colorful flourishes. It’s a thoroughly well-intentioned picture.

Flee is a far different animated experience in form and content—although, oddly enough, it treads some similar thematic grounds. It’s a story of a family threading to be splintered, and yet bound together by love. It’s about generational trauma, how good fortune in the face of long odds can become the root of insecurity. This one happens to be true. It’s a documentary animated out of necessity as it’s the testimony of an Afghan refugee who wished to remain anonymous. Because he’s an old friend of director Jonas Poher Rasmussen, he’s willing to give his testimony to the project. Provided the name Amin for the purposes of this film, he narrates the story of his happy early years in Afghanistan, and the sorrowful reasons his family decided to leave their homeland for Europe. Amin details a harrowing journey of a displaced child sent off from the only place he knew, tossed into the unknown. It gets all the more isolating when the family is splintered out of the necessities of various border crossings and asylum claims. Eventually he ends up a young person alone in Denmark, carrying so many painful memories and secrets that must be kept to ensure he stays and survives in this new country. 

Rasmussen sketches out the details by guiding in lovely, spare hand-drawn animation—fluid and simple, with soft colors, precise personal details, and evocative gestures—that conjures the gentle spirit and sensitive memories of his subject. The conversation on the audio stays at a relative even-keel, with Amin’s soft-spoken precision, and some subtle stumbling over the most difficult moments, carrying the narrative along. As he grows into himself, the journey of self-discovery is not only a refugee’s double-consciousness, but as a budding intellectual, and a gay man, he’s filled with reasons to feel apart from the others. Rasumussen helps to bring these complications to a full flowering, and the film becomes less a catalogue of struggles, and more a tribute to his friend’s resilience. Here’s a loving portrait of man’s ability to bloom where you’re planted, and to find strength in the very roots that might also be the source of one’s regrets and anxieties.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Child's Play: C'MON C'MON and PETITE MAMAN

Children, as the old song goes, are the future. But that’s not quite the case, right? The children are also now. They exist in the present, too. And yet to see a child is also to see a future, the potential not just for that person’s life, but for humanity itself. This recognition is one that can drift easily into sentimentality, shaving away the uncomfortable elements of childhood into a purity of progress. Far better to also recognize children’s humanity, in all the mess that implies. Tennessee Williams once wrote that kids are “precociously knowing and singularly charming, but not to be counted on for those gifts that arrive by no other way than…experience and contemplation.” (I might quibble with this quote, too, but I’ll get to that later.) Some movies about children try too effortfully to pile on the experience and contemplation. I usually prefer those that more artfully let young lives take their course.

Writer-director Mike Mills tends to understand this. He’s made lovely films about growing into the person you’re always becoming—a short documentary Paperboys; a late-in-life coming-out in Beginners; and his best, 20th Century Women, a deeply-felt 70s’ ensemble piece about a teenage boy and the various influences in his life. His latest is C’mon C’mon and it has the gentle rhythms and tones of an episode of This American Life. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as a cuddly, bearded, well-intentioned New York intellectual out collecting interviews with children for his public radio program. He goes to Detroit, Los Angeles, and New Orleans with his producers finding participants. How do these kids see the world? How do they see their future? Each kid, in a real interview, gives answers that seem honest in their unfussy plainspokenness, though one wonders if they think it’s also what he and his audience wants to hear: parents just don’t understand, the dangers of our world weigh heavily on them, and so on. But Phoenix presents such an open and earnest listener that it’s clear he draws something natural out of them as their subtle interlocutor. They also talk about their dreams and aspirations, and the real difficulties and obstacles in their way. Phoenix warmly guides them toward comfort in these exchanges, promising nothing more than a sympathetic ear.

Into this project arrives his precocious grade-school-aged nephew (Woody Norman), left in his care as the boy’s mother (Gaby Hoffmann) has to see to the institutionalization of the boy’s troubled father (Scoot McNairy). Phoenix clearly loves his nephew and wants what’s best for him. He’s delighted by his creativity and impressed by his thoughtfulness. But he’s also worn down by the daily demands of child care and tending to the emotional needs of a boy still learning how to regulate himself. (He also has some ritualized flights of fancy that can grate on his caretaker.) The movie is patient with both characters, allowing them the space to challenge each other as well as grow in mutual understanding. That makes for a small, delicately crafted movie perched on the same soft-spoken NPR assumption that it’s worth hearing what others have to say. It has not a perspective so much as an attitude, stubbornly sentimental and loaded with references to books and art spoken and shared reverently by its cast of characters. In simply observed black-and-white frames, the film blends documentary and fiction for a small, close story of cross-generational understanding. And in this style it finds a real familial warmth and charge in the scenes between Phoenix and the boy, a tentative and tender forging of meaningful memories in fleeting everyday moments. It doesn’t push to make its child characters beyond-their-years clever, and resists turning anyone into a mere symbol. This can sometimes give the movie a meandering focus. But at its best, it has the observational insight to simply let its performances play out and develop in something close to life-like dimensions.

An ever more delicate and mysterious vision of childhood is Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman. It proceeds like a fragile spell, a magic trick, a fable. And even that doesn’t do justice to the ways in which its fantasy just happens, casually, without fuss, with barely a flicker of the unreal. Sciamma’s films—the observational likes of Water Lilies, Girlhood, and Tomboy forming a triptych of perspectives on formative years in lives of young women—are typically cast in a realist light. Here she uses the same techniques to make a film built entirely out of a high concept, but anyone watching a random clip might never guess it. A little girl goes with her parents to a small house in the woods, the home of her recently deceased grandmother. The adults have the task of cleaning out the place, which gives the kid plenty of time to occupy herself. She wanders off into the yard, through some trees, and arrives at what she thinks is the neighbors’ house, where there’s a little girl her age inviting her to play. There’s something sweet and real about how a child can just make a friend, form a bond, in a blink of a simpatico eye. What a viewer will notice right away is that the girls look suspiciously alike. (They are played by twins, so that explains that.) Their houses, through subtle cues of set design and prop placement, are similar, too. As the girls meet in the woods for playtimes multiple times, it’s clear: the daughter has made friends with her own mother as a child—her petite maman.

One could imagine this twinning time-travel conceit in lesser hands heading for antics or silliness—maybe The Parent Trap by way of Back to the Future. Sure, if done right, that could be fun. But Sciamma approaches this picture with supreme restraint and total straight-faced matter-of-fact seriousness and commitment. She’d understand that Tennessee Williams shortchanged a child’s capacity for contemplation. In the faces of the two girls at the center of this film, she locates all the gentle severity of such an occurrence. As they realize their relationship’s time-bending qualities, they ponder and reflect on what it might mean. The future mother looks into the face of a child she now knows she’ll have, and can learn when, exactly, her own mother will pass away. The younger (if one can call her that) can now see concretely the tangible childlike qualities that surely still sit buried within her mother. Together, though, they just are who they are. Sciamma lets them be, playing politely and sensitively together as little girls can do—tromping through the woods, making plans for little imaginative games and skits, plotting the best way to get a sleepover. There are moments nestled within these quotidian affairs, though, that catch one’s breath in a simple, hushed expression of fantasy cross-generational connection. Typical of its effect is a gift from the future—music played on a pair of headphones we don’t hear, but the girl in the past hearing this unknown song out of time smiles an inscrutable Mona Lisa smile at the sound, a private preview. Most striking, though, is a softly murmured admission from mother to child—I’ve always wanted you. Here’s a movie that appears to do very little—and accomplishes so much. It respects a child’s capacity to take things as they are, and to engage in a sense of wonder that’s perfectly natural—deep thinking taking place in growing minds.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Version Control: THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS

There’s something romantic amid The Matrix Resurrections’ bafflements—a grasping, yearning, swooning desire for connection—that might surprise those who remember the original trilogy mostly for its trench coats, machine guns, mind-bending reveals, and nu-metal soundtrack. But wasn’t this always a series about learning to reconcile the parts of oneself, and one’s world, and to hold close those whose love holds the key to The Truth? Like so many franchise pictures these days, Resurrections is a reboot about reboots, a movie about itself. But unlike other properties doomed to grow ever-more airless and walled off from real emotion, here’s one that explodes out the emotional world of its predecessors in big, bold, busy ways, growing more overtly expressionistic and sentimental. Writer-director Lana Wachowski lovingly, yet not uncritically, returns solo to the world she and her sister Lilly created over twenty years ago and finds that it’s changed in passionate, provocative, and confusing ways.

She, co-writing with screenwriter Aleksandar Hemon and novelist David Mitchell, decided that Neo (Keanu Reeves), the self-sacrificing hero of the super cool, genre-busting, paradigm-shifting originals has found himself, post-death, recreated and plugged back into The Matrix. He doesn’t remember the events of those movies, or rather remembers them incorrectly, or rather thinks of them in the wrong category entirely. Almost. That’s when it’s clear Wachowski is making no mere remake or legacy sequel only drifting off nostalgia, although it is. Even more it’s a recreation and refutation, a continuation and complication. Once again characters are separated from their true selves, and true loves, and true worlds. Machines strain against their coding and people struggle to reconcile the paradoxes of a buggy program called life. Thus the movie’s thrillingly dense and bafflingly never quite what you think it’ll be, steering hard into philosophical and psychological dilemmas that always formed the structure of this series’ sensational action spectacle. It makes for a heady trip.

You see, instead of Neo once again learning that what we think is reality is, in fact, a digital construct fed to us by a ruling class of advanced robots to keep humans captive in pods of goo that are their energy source, he’s a coder for a tech company who thinks that story is the plot of their most famous games. A trilogy of them. What better way to make a people forget that they’re in that simulation than make them think The Truth is mere fiction? When Neo’s boss  (Jonathan Groff) calls him in to say the moneymen want to exploit the I.P. again he’s told “Warner Brothers is making Matrix 4 with or without” them. Here’s a sequel spinning games within games, in which a focus group is called in to stand in for Matrix fans discussing theories about what it was all about, man. It’s about trans self-actualization; or it’s about simulation theory; maybe it’s all about the bullet time. All of the above, Wachowski says. And wait’ll you see where it goes from there. Neo’s therapist (Neil Patrick Harris) is concerned that his patient’s reality is blurring—we see flashes of the earlier movies, echoes of sequences past that rattle around in moments of tingling deja vu. There’s something real and unreal at the same time, ripples from conflicts and debates in the so-called real world shaking the foundations of the green lines of code.

Neo is more lost than ever, imbued with the knowledge he needs yet all the more resistant to the truth for having buried it in plain sight. Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), his soul mate in kung-fu, and love, is also resurrected in the Matrix. But she’s been pushed even deeper into the computer’s fiction. As they find themselves drawn by destiny, by programming, by happenstance, by fate to reconnect with each other and themselves, a host of returning characters and new faces (coolest has to be the blue-haired Jessica Henwick as rogue freedom-fighter Bugs—“like Bunny,” she quips) and some returning characters in new faces (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, making a habit of that sort of thing) line up along scrambled battle-lines leftover from the old revolution. The proceedings get ever more complicated. But even in the long stretches where I wasn’t quite sure what was happening or what outcome to root for, there’s that central yearning. That’s what makes it romantic—that strong surge of emotion, that plaintive push toward greater understanding of oneself and one’s loved ones. Reeves and Moss haven’t missed a step from their earlier performances, slipping easily into the human avatars of the fake world and the broken real humanity beneath—synthesized in the eventual uneasy steps back toward digital superheroes. It’s still a world of point-and-click prophecy and computerized spirituality, of shifting perspectives and cyclical conflicts. And Wachowski clearly loves her characters—and wants to see them reawaken to their full potential as much as we do.

The result is just as much a knotty puzzle of a head-fake, mind-bender as the originals—but woolier and more static, with a meandering central drive that’s sometimes as lost as its characters. In its long scenes of exposition spoken intently by the large cast, it pays off the intense, long-lived conversations from those who undertook the amateur field of Matrix studies seriously those decades ago. (Remember the philosophers’ commentaries from the DVDs? I hope that roundtable is reconvened for this one.) The movie can be playfully meta-textual, and even knowingly self-parodic, as it relentlessly plays with expectations. I didn’t always find it as immediately gripping or legible as the originals. It’s less self-consciously cool and stingier in action, but it’s still rich in ideas and has swelling heartfelt expressions of human (and inter-human) connection, and shot with a warm energy in sumptuous light and slick effects. And some stuff blows up. When in motion, the movie’s a shock of recognition but, successfully and unsuccessfully, chopped up, remixed, edited to ribbons, and smoothed out in new and bewildering ways. It may not always be legible, and lacks the immediacy and palpable visual pleasures of its progenitors, but its heart is in the right place.

This is the distinctive work of a filmmaker who has stylishly, entertainingly drawn out these ideas—of humans caught in a system built to grind them down, and who assert their passions and humanity against all odds—with her usual co-writer/director sister through Speed Racer’s masterpiece of hyperactive anime homage, Cloud Atlas’s six-fold cross-cut reincarnated melodramas, and Sense8’s dazzlingly sensual sci-fi poly-psychic mind-blender series. So it should be no surprise to find her returning to The Matrix with a totally earnest extension of the originals’ cyberpunk Plato’s cave. It meets our moment of accelerated techno-dystopian alienation and confusion with its own, and lets some love shine through the cracks. How romantic.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Tangled: SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME

Here’s a Spider-Man movie about how much fun earlier Spider-Man movies were. Sure, it’s also about second chances (for Spider-Men) and learning from your (Spider-Man) mistakes and finding the people who truly love you for who you really are (Spider-Man). But I guess that makes it all the more a movie that begins and ends with nothing but Spider-Man and references to Spider-Man and cheap hits of nostalgia for Spider-Men we’ve loved and lost before. By the finale of Spider-Man: No Way Home, which brings together a cavalcade of cameos for web-swinging acrobatic action and pretends it built (or re-built) characters along the way, it made me, as someone who, I’ll admit, would call Spider-Man my favorite superhero, want the impossible: less Spider-Man.

This oddly flat and clunky project, the latest in the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe, opens up a live-action Spider-Verse to tromp around in. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) asks Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to help the world forget he’s the friendly neighborhood superhero. The spells goes wrong and results in characters from previous Spidey pictures stumbling in disoriented and wondering what to do with themselves. There’s Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) and Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) from the Tobey Maguire movies and Electro (Jamie Foxx) and Lizard (Rhys Ifans) from the Andrew Garfield ones. The movie’s best idea is also what saps it of energy: these guys are way too confused to be much of a real threat. Instead, Strange and Spidey argue over how best to solve the problem. The wizard doctor wants to zip-zap them back from whence they came where they’ll meet their doom, while good ol’ Peter thinks he can save them. They’re scientists, after all, victims of one misfiring experiment or another. (This movie thinks their villainous natures can be subsumed under the audience’s affection for the characters and performers.) Practically, however, it’s a movie going around in circles, hoping to keep an audience’s interest by trotting out these cameos and lingering long enough for applause breaks before giving each returning face pretty much nothing to do.

And, for how befuddled they should be, and are at first, about getting ripped out of their universe and into another, these villains quickly get pretty casual and blasé about the situation. In typical MCU fashion, there are long scenes of actors standing around trading quips, smirking and giggling at the outsized sci-fi suspense whipping up around them. There’s nothing so heavy—not even the death of a major character—that can pause the deflating jokes for too long. And these have to be the cheapest and emptiest cracks, as Peter’s pals picked to help present possible solutions to this whole mess—MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon)—find themselves scoffing in disbelief at names and powers from these inter-dimensional interlopers. It want to both play off how much people love the earlier Spider-Man iterations and set itself up as the best one. (That they start calling Holland “Spidey 1” gets a little funny in that regard when he’s literally sharing the screen with people whose movies worked way better than this one.) No Way Home wobbles between these two modes: reverent celebration of what came before, and goofy puncturing of any possible seriousness. The entire multiverse is threatening to collapse on itself, and it feels about as monumental as channel surfing. That leaves vast swaths of the movie to clunk along in scenes that aren’t shaped so much as plugged into place, and moments of real high drama played off so abruptly and drearily—there are deaths and magical amnesia that’d hit harder with better track laid for it—that one forgets these are supposed to be real characters to care about and not just action figures clattering around.

Worst has to be the movie’s total lack of interesting style. Much has been made of the MCU’s bland house style, closer to network procedurals than cinema spectacle during downtimes between animated action. The style can be pushed here and there—one could parse the fine gradations between a Johnson, Gunn, or Waititi and a Russo bro—but often settles into a bland TV-style over-the-shoulder conversational tone mixed with quick-cut action in sets that trend to muddy grey. (That this year has found the theatrical and TV sides of the universe ever more immeshed makes this homogenized smallness ever more apparent.) This one’s pretty ugly most of the time: photographed with rarely more than three or four actors in frame together, and dialogue often in alternating tight medium or close up shots. Maybe it’s the fact the whole thing was shot last fall taking COVID precautions, but the look ends up cramped—few extras, smallish sets, and tons of flat blocking that has performers so separated from each other that they might’ve been green-screened in separately. When it comes to Big Names swanning in trying to steal scenes in this airless environment, it feels all the worse.

This ill-fitting sense of where to put people in the frame and how to track their behavior extends to the larger sense that nothing much matters herein. When any character can be whatever the plot needs and come flying in on magic sparkle dust from any other movie of which they want to remind you, it doesn’t much matter what happens to them. There’s something hollow at the core, and no amount of emoting can fill it. There’s a silly scene where characters from three different universes seriously compare iterations of advice from dead mentor figures, all tearing up and nodding sagely and talking about how meaningful the franchise’s triplicate pop psychology is. It goes for heavy meaning, but instead piles up comic cliche until it triple-underlines the silliness because the story’s only connection to anything real or human in its movements are to what it means for Spider-Man. And the collision between different visions of the character ends up highlighting how directors Sam Raimi and Marc Webb, for whatever missteps one might concede, were making real movies with their earlier versions, and Jon Watts, on his third go around, is stuck making a product. When characters from the earlier pictures arrive it’s from a different world entirely—one where these superhero movies weren’t only about themselves and pitched for a blandest possible homogeneous outcome. They interact awkwardly with the MCU world because they carry with them messy tendrils of style and substance that can’t entirely get polished away by the shallowness they’re asked to play.